KILLER WHALES | SEAWORLD’S OCEAN OF CASH

The Kansas City Star (Sunday) - - NATION WATCH - By MITCH STACY and KELLI KENNEDY

Com­pany’s brand is built on or­cas, and none has more value than Ti­likum.

OShamu is big busi­ness at SeaWorld, which owns more killer whales than any­one else in the world and builds the orca im­age into its mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar brand.

The death of a trainer last week won’t change that.

Train­ers at the for-profit parks in Or­lando, San An­to­nio and San Diego weren’t al­lowed back in the wa­ter with the hulk­ing ocean preda­tors Satur­day when shows re­sumed. SeaWorld and a panel of out­side ex­perts are con­duct­ing a re­view of how the com­pany han­dles or­cas.

But the tim­ing of the killer whales’ re­turn to per­for­mances re­flects just what the sleek black-and-white mam­mals mean to SeaWorld, which the pri­vate eq­uity firm The Black­stone Group bought last fall for about $2.7 bil­lion from An­heuser-Busch InBev in a deal that in­cluded two Busch Gar­dens theme parks and sev­eral other at­trac­tions.

“SeaWorld op­er­a­tions are built around Shamu and the orca. So quan­ti­ta­tively they mean lit­er­ally hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to that com­pany,” said Den­nis Speigel, pres­i­dent of In­ter­na­tional Theme Park Ser­vices, a con­sult­ing firm.

No an­i­mal is more valu­able to that op­er­a­tion than Ti­likum, the largest orca in cap­tiv­ity.

Ti­likum now has been in­volved in the deaths of three train­ers and re­quires a spe­cial set of han­dling rules, which Atchi­son wouldn’t spec­ify.

Cap­tured nearly 30 years ago off the coast of Ice­land, Ti­likum has grown into the al­pha male of cap­tive killer whales, his value as a stud im­pos­si­ble to quan­tify.

Killer whales — ac­tu­ally part of the por­poise fam­ily — aren’t en­dan­gered. Es­ti­mates of their world­wide pop­u­la­tion range from 50,000 to more than 100,000.

But it is il­le­gal to cap­ture killer whales in the U.S. and sev­eral other coun­tries, and while a few have been caught in re­cent years in Rus­sia and Ja­pan, U.S. im­port laws make it dif­fi­cult to ac­quire an orca caught in the wild.

“Re­ally, you can’t buy them,” said Speigel, who put the mar­ket value of an in­di­vid­ual whale at up to $10 mil­lion.

That makes breed­ing the best way to build a col­lec­tion of killer whales to draw in vis­i­tors at up to $78.95 each to sit in the splash zone or take pic­tures of their kids pet­ting Shamu, the stage name SeaWorld gives all of its adult or­cas in shows.

And no one is bet­ter at breed­ing killer whales than SeaWorld.

The com­pany owns 25 of the 42 or­cas in cap­tiv­ity, and other theme parks some­times come to SeaWorld to get theirs.

At the heart of it all is Ti­likum, the com­pany’s go-to sire. Of the 20 calves born at SeaWorld parks, Ti­likum has fa­thered 13, the com­pany said. SeaWorld has only one other breed­ing male.

Be­fore SeaWorld im­proved its ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion meth­ods, males were more com­monly crated, put on planes and lent to var­i­ous theme parks for breed­ing, part of the rea­son that only a hand­ful of parks world­wide have suc­cess­fully birthed calves. The prac­tice con­tin­ues de­spite an out­cry from an­i­mal rights groups.

Like many amuse­ment parks, pri­vately held SeaWorld doesn’t release at­ten­dance fig­ures or say whether it charges More than 2,000 peo­ple watched or­cas, or killer whales, per­form Satur­day at SeaWorld in Or­lando. Train­ers di­rected the or­cas from out­side the tank. other fa­cil­i­ties stud fees or other fees for the right to buy or bor­row or­cas.

Nor does it dis­close what chunk of its rev­enue comes from killer whales.

But that’s what every­one goes to see.

Mitchel Kal­man­son, a marine mam­mal ap­praiser in cen­tral Florida who has bro­kered the sale of two killer whales, agreed that parks such as SeaWorld aren’t the same without Shamu.

“Without killer whales,” said Mitchel Kal­man­son, a marine mam­mal ap­praiser in cen­tral Florida who has bro­kered the sale of two killer whales, “the rest are an­cil­lary shows.”

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